U.S. Politics: Time To Reject Religious Litmus Tests? genre: Hip-Gnosis & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Religious Litmus Test

The notion of a litmus test has long been associated with politics. Strangely, when asked if they employ such a methodology, the vast majority of politicians vehemently deny that they would bring any such bias to their position as a public servant.

On the other hand, voters tend to display their litmus standards as a badge of honor and a measure of conviction. We've all heard the proclamations..."I won't vote for a pro-choice candidate"..."I can't endorse a candidate that supports gay marriage"...and so on. Rationally speaking, the fact that politicians and voters approach the notion of litmus tests so differently defies logic and makes little sense.

Other contradictions abound...but I would like to focus on the litmus test that I believe has done more to paralyze our objectivity and to polarize our political process than any in recent memory. It’s the litmus test of religion...which includes the requirement by many voters that elected officials embrace religion or faith and act in accordance with a specific set of beliefs...as well as the acceptance that politicians need to be coy about their litmus standards to maintain a broader appeal in order to be elected.

Over time, the litmus test mentality continues to evolve to include ever more specific measurements. It isn't enough for a candidate to espouse a religious affiliation...one's particular affiliation and one’s adherence to the prescribed values is now a matter of review and it may serve to nullify one's consideration as a viable candidate for some portion of the electorate. Case in point...Mitt Romney's Mormonism.

Gathering for their April meeting at the county courthouse, Republican activists from Warren County, Iowa, planned for this summer's county fair and vented about illegal immigration.

And then the county chairman for Senator John McCain's presidential campaign, Chad Workman, made an unexpected digression: He took direct aim at Mitt Romney's religion, according to four people at the meeting.

Workman questioned whether Mormons were Christians, discussed an article alleging that the Mormon Church helps fund Hamas, and likened the Mormons' treatment of women to the Taliban's, said participants, who requested anonymity to discuss the meeting freely.

One participant summed up Workman's argument this way: "The fundamental flaw of Mitt Romney…was that he was Mormon, not because he thinks this way or that way on one issue."

The most recent example came to light earlier this week when the Washington Post reported that Emma Nemecek, an Iowa field operative for Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, had recently forwarded an e-mail to Iowa Republicans containing a number of criticisms of Mormonism, including a charge that it is not a Christian faith. The e-mail closed with a quote from a Founding Father, John Jay: "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."

The campaign of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was forced to make a similar apology this month after The New York Sun reported that Katie Harbath, Giuliani's deputy e-campaign director, had forwarded to a blogger a story in The Salt Lake Tribune linking Romney to an unofficial Mormon prophecy that a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would one day save the Constitution. "Thought you'd find this interesting," Harbath wrote to the blogger, the Sun reported.

Romney has faced repeated slights against his religion from other quarters as well. A Florida televangelist, Bill Keller, told followers recently that a vote for Romney is a vote for Satan. And a small group of worshipers from the Faith Christian Outreach Church in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, has been going door-to-door distributing a DVD that takes a critical look at the Mormon Church.

"Our concern was simply that Mormonism has continued to try and pass itself off as a Christian religion, which it is not," said Monte Knudsen, senior pastor at the church, who insisted the effort was not aimed at hurting Romney's candidacy.

"In some ways, [Romney's candidacy] is the best test of whether Americans have really put some of the old religious differences aside," said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "And my guess is that they haven't."

Its worth noting that each time a campaign operative has called a candidates religion into question, the candidate who employs that operative has issued an apology as well as a statement that the personal faith of their opponent should not be an issue. The obvious question is whether these attacks...which are frequently described as lapses in judgment...are actually part of a strategy to manipulate the well known bias that exists within the electorate? While we've all heard the expression "accidents happen", my suspicious nature doubts that, when it comes to politics, they happen all that often.

Look, the bottom line is that Romney served as Governor of the state of Massachusetts...and he seems to have conducted himself in an acceptable manner (my personal political preferences aside). I'm just not sure what threat he poses to his fellow Americans...and if he does in fact pose a threat as a direct result of his faith, what is that threat? If he isn’t a threat, what does the belief that a threat exists tell us about this country?

Let me attempt to answer my own questions. I don’t believe Romney’s faith presents anymore of a threat than Rudy Giuliani’s failure to adhere to the precepts of his faith (his divorces are presumably breeches of Catholicism). The threat comes from those who believe that one faith ought to trump all others, that seek to impose their particular faith upon others, and that believe they are imbued with the god given mandate to pursue both.

I would argue that it is incumbent upon politicians to be neutral with regards to the application of any one particular faith. A glance at the sectarian violence in Iraq ought to suffice to demonstrate what happens when religious groups are determined to make their particular beliefs the law of the land. There are numerous other examples.

To a lesser degree, our current president is an example of the dangers and risks associated with a narrow ideology and a belief that a particular belief set ought to be institutionalized. At some point, adamant proponents of differing ideologies determine that the state is illegitimate and that subverting or overthrowing the state is consistent with one’s religious tenets…and in the extreme…that doing so is the justifiable will of god.

What remains to be seen is whether we can step back from this dangerous trend and revisit the guidance of our founding fathers…guidance that sought to prevent the victimization of different faiths while establishing a government that would be tolerant of diverse beliefs but guided by a bill of rights that remained ideologically impartial…though institutionally equitable.

Far too many Americans endorse the misconception that the United States is a nation guided by a specific vision of Biblical law…and that our constitution and our legal system must adhere to one interpretation of that law. On the contrary, America was founded to avoid the pitfalls of that very notion. In fact, our existence emanates from a rejection of that very construct.

We are a nation that sought to judge its inhabitants by their commitment to fair and equitable treatment…by their willingness to allow alternate beliefs so long as they would adhere to the notion that each of us is entitled to humane treatment.

Goodness is not measured by affiliation…goodness is an individual action; not an act of admonition by one individual or one group towards another. Goodness is a choice that is mindful of the sanctity of humanity…even when that humanity may hold beliefs that do not comport with our own. Goodness is not the domain of one faith…it is not unique to one set of beliefs.

A religious litmus test is not a test of goodness…it is a demand for compliance…it is a rejection of difference…but once applied it is also an egregious application of bias…it is a judgment we are not entitled to make…and when we do make that judgment, we ridicule those who sought to rid us of such bias; wise men that century's prior had the foresight to understand the risks that come with demands for ideological compliance.

Isn't it time that voters and politicians recommit themselves to an honest dialogue, an acceptance of differences, and an awareness and willingness to see beyond them in order to move forward? If not, where and when will the inevitable and torturous machinations cease?

Image courtesy of www.thelitmustest.org

Daniel DiRito | June 21, 2007 | 10:24 AM
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